Footman Footnotes – Frank McNally on the late and very colourful Gillies MacBain

He was in the habit of buying The Irish Times daily and reading every word, over several hours, with a ruler in hand

You can be addicted to anything, I suppose. But in the case of the late Gillies Macbain, as I once heard from him in person, the substance to which he became dependent during a vulnerable part of his life was this newspaper.

Sitting across a table in the kitchen of Cranagh Castle, his home in Tipperary, some years ago, he recalled a period when he was in the habit of buying The Irish Times daily and reading every word, over several hours, with a ruler in hand to underline any important bits.

The compulsion may have arisen from a related condition – a need to write letters to the editor – something he did a lot in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, always using postcards to maximise his chances of catching the editorial eye. But it became too time-consuming in the end, so he had to kick the habit somehow.

He was in recovery by the time we met. Yet having heard what I did for a living, he was clearly happy to invite me into the living quarters of the castle for tea.


And it occurred to me that if his Irish Times usage really had been an addiction (his term), my presence was the equivalent of waving a glass of whiskey at an alcoholic.

But I needn’t have worried. Although he sent me a postcard a while afterwards, suggesting I write about something he thought funny – there was a clipping attached, now lost to both memory and my filing system – I don’t think he ever fell off the wagon completely again.

Macbain’s death on March 16th last had somehow escaped me until I read his obituary in the London Times this week, subtitled: “Enigmatic pantryboy, butler, dairy farmer, nipple greaser, author, unlikely friend of Mick Jagger and ‘the last footman in Ireland’.”

To save readers Googling “nipple greasing”, with perhaps unfortunate results, I should explain that, in his case, it was something done in garages and engineering workshops, with grease guns.

But “The Last Footman” became the title of a superbly written memoir (Lilliput Press 2019), referring to a career that began when the Scottish-born Macbain came to Dublin in 1964, aged 20, pawned his father’s cufflinks for emergency funds, and found a late vocation in the twilight era of the Irish big house.

Speaking of big houses, he went on to acquire his own (somewhat distressed) Georgian pile in my native South Monaghan, through which I had first heard of him long before we met in the kitchen at Cranagh.

As summarised by Orna Mulcahy in her review of The Last Footman, Macbain’s relationship with the Monaghan house ended as follows:

“He sells it to a dubious type in a Mercedes who moves in before the deal is complete and introduces terrible new carpets. It’s the carpets that really hurt and Macbain retaliates by setting fire to the house. Or did he?”

I don’t know if he did either. But I do know that a local garda, a former neighbour of mine, saw fit to drive down to Tipperary to interview him about it afterwards.

Whatever about garda interviews, he was distrustful of mere facts as a way of expressing biographical truth. Writing in this newspaper about the way he approached his memoir, he struck an almost mystical note:

“I believe that the narrative function of the mind is ancient, animal and instinctive. We deal with the events of the day as best we can, spontaneously and as they arise. In the course of the 24-hour cycle, we sleep. In sleep the mind is not inactive. Like a bank that closed at four o’clock in the afternoon, or a restaurant that closes at midnight, there is a lot of clearing up and sorting out going on behind closed doors.

“We are composed largely of our memories, of things that we have learned, of characteristics shaped by our families, our education, our experiences, our victories, our loves, our losses.

“We die every night. When we return to consciousness we are newborn. The memories that form us have been processed and revised and refined from the raw experiences that assaulted us during waking hours. This is essential. Dreaming is a natural and necessary mental process, an attempt to form experiences into a coherent narrative of who we are . . . Autobiography is this natural function carried into waking life.”

In this spirit, I feel it fair to share a strange event – or was it? – reported by those who attended MacBain’s lying-in-repose. I have heard from more than one person that there was an “atmospheric experience” of some kind, involving noise - possibly “voices” or a “hum” – after which an unexplained “wind” passed through the room.

Someone joked that the deceased had been having “a last laugh at us”, which from my knowledge of the man does seem highly possible. But back in the realm of mere fact-checking, I rang the funeral director this week for a comment, and he assured me he had noticed nothing unusual.